Sunday, March 12, 2017

into the abyss

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I won a talent competition at church.
I was wearing a dress that looked like curtains or maybe a cover for the fanciest couch in the house.  I had stringy bangs and braces and was beyond shy and to be honest there weren't that many other musicians there that day, but it was the first time in my life that I knew - before anyone else said a word - that I had done something well.  My grandma was in the audience and I overheard her telling the story for weeks, my granddaughter sang On Eagle’s Wings and it was like an angel (as grandparents do).  She was so proud of me, in a way not dissimilar to when we fall in love with a band and then three years later they make it big.  I believed; but I already knew.  

I sang, bits and pieces, lessons and recitals and trying not to get noticed in the back row of chorus class because timid, awkward nerds don’t find their place in the world at the age of fifteen.  My senior year of high school brought about college application time, and I remember exactly where I was when my mom brought me the letter of acceptance with a heaping scholarship to IU; I had no idea how perfect a choice it was for me at the time but in a split-second, I decided, yes, Indiana, music.  Yes.  I was not going to be an opera star, I was never talented in that way.  Even at nineteen, the delicate calisthenics required to be a successful soprano did not suit my strengths, despite the best efforts of Clara Barlow and Teresa Kubiak and Timothy Noble and the other phenomenal talents to which I was exposed, all of whom tried desperately to shove my bull-in-a-china-shop peg into a hole shaped like a frail wide-eyed waif that could pick neatly through complicated appoggiatura and never said fuck in front of someone's mother.  But what I did have was a rich and ringing contralto belt.  There is no better word for it, I didn’t have a great range but in the small space where I had it, it could blow the doors off the church.  It’s the stuff great 80s ballads are made of; Cher, Annie Lennox, Celine Dion has it as wide as the sky; later it became Carrie Underwood and Christina Aguilera and that one guy that got kicked off American Idol that I loved so much, and look, all of these singers are famous because they have it in spades and I had only a tiny polite slice.  But I had it, I still do even though I haven’t used it since for anything other than winning rounds of beer at karaoke night.  It is truly a sweet spot, the ability to do something in the world well, no matter how insignificant, there is no way to measure it but it feels like a weapon.  It's 92% when the road is open and rolls like hot churned butter underneath your wheels, when you grit down and the power flows, when you flip the omelette perfectly onto the plate, the heart-stopping freefall before you yank the ripcord that unfolds your parachute with a thump, flying, flying, choosing to fly.  
On the morning that my grandmother died, I was in the middle of hosting a training camp.  I got everyone riding, we spent about an hour in a group warming up and then I dispatched them quite crankily up the front side of Carter Lake with instructions to time trial to the top.  One by one they departed, until I was the last one standing with my friend running SAG on the side of the road.  He asked if I wanted a lift up, he knew, but I shook my head and clipped in to sweep from the back.  My iPhone was in my pocket; I fished it out and hit play, and it was Jeff Buckley, singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and it broke my heart.  I listened to it the entire way up the climb, I let it embrace a pain that was horrifyingly new, over and over and over.  And until a couple of days before I left for Hawaii, a cool Saturday morning on roads empty except for the cyclist rolling silently at my side, that was the last time I had been up that climb.  Silly, perhaps, to avoid twenty minutes of riding, and maybe everything in the world doesn't have to mean something but certainly there are things that should not mean nothing.  Grief is great, and grand, and you never know when it will wrench the breath from your body.  
I knew I’d be asked to sing at the funeral, and I did, and even though I hadn’t done it in years it was both remarkable and wholly inadequate, a brief remembrance.  It was right that I should find it again, there, maybe you don’t believe in this kind of crap but I do, that I can reach down inside of me and for three minutes, once again, be excellent.  It doesn’t matter how long it’s been, I suppose it quite literally is just like riding a bike; you take the breath and feel your diaphragm settle against your lungs and it is as dependable as the ground under your feet.  Jeff Buckley shuffled up again at some point when I was in Kona, it brought it all back, I listened to that song perhaps a million more times over the next week, on the plane to Auckland, and still again and again in the car driving down to Taupo.  I let it rip out of me into the brilliant and biting blue sky over New Zealand and I thought about my grandmother and the feeling of doing something well, for no reason other than the doing of the thing.  She believed.  She knew.  
For about a thousand reasons (nine hundred of them filed under, sweet jesus it is fucking windy), I am so grateful that I was able to spend time training in Hawaii before heading onwards to New Zealand.  The work I did there, both physically and mentally, was akin to the work that you do when you decide the only way to make the house strong enough is to begin by dowsing it in gasoline and lighting a match.  Masahide: Barn's burnt down / Now I can see the moon.  There was a lot about it that was challenging, and I was not so much nudged out of my comfort zone as I was hip-checked straight off the cliff of it into an abyss.  It is one thing to understand logically that you are going to spend a week-plus training with athletes who are in a totally different zip code of phenomenal talent and ability, to have clear expectations that everyone is doing their own work and taking care of themselves and it's fine.  It's another thing to try and quiet the caveman brain that yanks the fire alarm when you start a workout and ninety seconds later everyone has disappeared off down the road.  And for a while, it took all that confidence I had been feeling and blew it clean away.  
But it has never been a bad thing to have your eyes opened to how much more is out there; no matter how intolerable it may feel to live through these moments, they are a brilliant opportunity for progress.  I will likely never travel over the earth as quickly as most of these athletes but to be exposed to it so closely and so regularly lit a fire to try.  To want to find out, to continue to chase what it means to not just do the thing but to be excellent within the confines of your own body.  And let me tell you this.  I believed that I was ready to rumble with the story that I write in my head, the one where I am never good enough or fast enough or strong enough, the one I've been battling for most of my life.  I got about a billion chances in Hawaii to do so, to write my own SFD about the experience, to sit through the discomfort of my reactions and to be curious about all the shit that it stirred up.  Being there was hard, it was uncomfortable, I struggled, but I learned.  And I reaffirmed the other story that I tell myself, the one that is also true.  I want to spend my life in rooms where everyone is smarter, stronger, fitter, faster than I am.  Because no matter how ugly the revolution may be, that is where I will grow.  
I thought I was ready to face some of my shit in Hawaii; I thought I was ready to explore ironman again (I was not ready to break my nose in an accident that caused a friend to remark drily, social media claims another victim).  Likely the truth is, we are never really ready.  But we have a choice.  We can stay on the couch and let the days pass by, blissful in the rut of our ignorance.  Or, we can take ourselves places, we can let the world shove us off into that abyss, knowing that once the dust settles and the shrieking quiets and the air clears, we will be better for it.  I wrote before the race: I am lucky to be here, to have found my way back, to have the opportunity to spend all day chasing excellence, even in the darkest moments I will not take it for granted.  I was not naive enough to expect perfection, I was hoping for progress, or at the very least to simply not repeat the mistakes of my past but instead to make brand-new mistakes, to be sorted and dealt with on the other side.    
And I walked into the day, this race, knowing that I had everything I needed.  I knew.  That I was as ready as I could be, that we are never completely ready; knowing that no matter how ready I was, it might not be enough, it might be too soon, it might simply be a small step forward on a long road back.  There were signs along the way, there was fitness, I had faith in it, I was (tentatively) as confident as I've ever been, but I also understood how early in my return to training that it was to be tackling what is, in fact, a pretty big ask.  It is an extraordinary thing, ironman.  Because at the end of the day, the big day, the one where I am covered in sweat and pee and melted sunscreen and coke and tears and wasp stings and blood from my broken nose, what I am chasing is not a time or a split or a place.  Instead, I want to be able to sit quietly with the solid & unshakable feeling that I have done something well.  Something extraordinary, even.  To stand at the end of the day, at peace, with the same confidence my grandma had in me all those years ago.  I believed.  I knew.